A new animated short film depicts the deadliest day in automotive sports history, and one of the reasons Mercedes-Benz left sports-car racing for decades.
The film, “Le Mans 1955” was released last month and brings to the screen the drama and tragedy that put a lasting mark on one of the biggest races on the planet.
The 15-minute animated short tells the story of the race between Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar, specifically the story between the two factory teams’ drives to outdo each other on the track. In the race, Jaguar driver Mike Hawthorn swerved in front of Austin-Heely driver Lance Macklin to pit. Macklin pulled around Hawthorn but into the way of Mercedes driver Pierre Levegh and the two crashed.
Levegh’s car launched over Macklin’s, vaulted into a spectator area, and burst into flames. Dozens were killed due to the impact and eventually 80 spectators died from the crash and resulting injuries. More than 170 spectators were injured due to the crash. Levegh was badly burned and died at the scene.
American driver John Fitch is portrayed in the short film and was due to sub in for Levegh before the crash. Fitch reportedly pleaded with Mercedes team boss Alfred Neubauer to abandon the race after the crash, which Neubauer initially—and controversially—declined to do. Neubauer and Mercedes kept racing into the night, with Sterling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio in the lead car, before abandoning the race in the early morning hours the day after the crash. Neubauer was widely criticized for not stopping the Mercedes team after the crash, and race organizers were derided for not cancelling the race, which happened roughly three hours into the 24-hour race. Hawthorn would eventually win the race the following day.
The film depicts Fitch’s protest and Neubauer’s eventual decision that would change racing forever. Mercedes halted its sports-car development program immediately after the race, and wouldn’t restart another factory-works team until the late 1980s. Sports-car racing began a new, safer era for drivers and spectators and the track was eventually changed to handle faster cars.
Fitch went on to become a proponent of safety systems used in racing, even used today, and Hawthorn’s legacy was linked to the tragedy even after his death, which was in 1959.
The animated short tells the story of that decision and is a must-see short for any race fan.